It has become a tradition to begin a new reviewing year by asking the Strange Horizons reviewers to tell us a little about the other things they've been reading, watching and playing during the previous year. Despite everything else that has happened, we're continuing that tradition as we move into 2021. During 2020 most of us have leaned harder than ever on books, TV, and games of one sort or another to fill our time, so here's what's caught our interest. I'm writing this on the last day of 2020, with no clear idea as yet what 2021 is likely to bring us. Nonetheless, let us hope for a better new year. In the meantime, stay safe, wash your hands, and wear a mask.
Redfern Jon Barrett: I’ve been fascinated by creative worldbuilding ever since I was small (I was a strange child), and perhaps it’s the whole being-confined-to-the-apartment-for-a-year thing, but my infatuation with fictional societies has recently turned to obsession. There are two worlds in particular that I want to mention right now—one great and the other, well, somewhat ungreat. First there’s the world of Monica Byrne’s novel The Girl in the Road. Set across India and much of Africa in the late twenty-first century, Byrne’s societies incorporate diverse landscapes, queer identities, and technological leaps which are seamlessly integrated with one another, taking note of current trends and speculating on their direction in a way that’s not only believable, but compelling.
Far too much speculative fiction presents us with worlds featuring social mores which are identical to those now, and 2020s sci-fi which presents us with all-straight, all-gender binaried futures is going to age like the early 1960s visions of undisputed space patriarchy. Which brings me to the second world: that of Westworld’s third season. While the first season hinted at an economy dominated by China and widespread, normalised pansexuality, by the third we’re presented with the usual all-straight, all-bland future of tight leather outfits and overly clean US cities. It’s terribly lazy worldbuilding for a show with so much money poured into it. For the sake of my nerdy child self, I hope our own future sees a world where unimaginative speculative fiction is left firmly in the past.
Nicole Berland: When I first heard whisperings about HBO’s Lovecraft Country, I knew nothing of Matt Ruff’s novel and had assumed the series would be some kind of color-blind paean to a truly detestable man. I didn’t understand it. I had believed the world of speculative storytelling had withdrawn its worship of H. P. Lovecraft—that bigoted patriarch of monstrosity—when the 2015 World Fantasy Awards stopped using a bust of him for its trophy. Coming so closely on the heels of the controversial decision in July to honor Lovecraft with a Retro Hugo, I feared, based on its title, that the series was part of a reactionary trend. But, when I saw that Jordan Peele was serving as an executive producer, I immediately recognized that the series, far from whitewashing the genealogy of horror, was going to indict that legacy.
It delivers. During the very first episode, the threat of racial violence for three Black characters taking on a road trip through rural America proves much more terrifying than the Lovecraftian monsters that attack them in the woods. Jarringly, the second episode abandons the monster genre entirely to delve into the secret world of white magicians wielding dark magic. The subsequent episodes then wrench you through a dizzying range of genres, which involve haunted houses, museum heists, body snatching, time travel, multiverses, malevolent spirits, and even Korean folklore.
The more episodic structure of the series eschews recent trends in prestige television, which emphasize long-form narrative arcs and often take pains to encourage binging by smoothing out any tonal transitions between episodes. Thinking about Lovecraft Country’s unusual rhythms helped me notice what is actually so very special about it. Beyond even engaging with the project of Afrofuturism, which uses the tools of science fiction to explore Black cultures and envision Black futures, Lovecraft Country foregrounds Blackness among as many genres as possible, and, in doing so, is both breathtaking and radical in its scope.
Gautam Bhatia: I read a lot of excellent genre-related stuff this year. The third instalment in Seth Dickinson’s Baru Cormorant series, Essa Hansen’s Nophek Gloss, Yoss’s Red Dust, Yoon Ha Lee’s Phoenix Extravagant. But the book that takes the crown for me is Adrian Tchaikovsky’s The Doors of Eden. Epic, sweeping science fiction, combining the political and personal beautifully, and filling you up with that oceanic feeling of looking out into a an entire universe. Beautiful, and an instant classic.
Stephen Case: Works of fiction that stood out this year were the first two books in M. R. Carey’s new Rampart Trilogy: The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli. They were the last thing I thought I wanted, as post-apocalyptic fiction about a world transformed by war, climate change, and carnivorous forests felt like a poor choice of spring reading material as the pandemic spread across the world. But they’re written with such humor and hope that they turned out to be exactly what I needed. I won’t wax too poetical about them here, as I spelled out what I loved in reviews of the first one here and the second one there, other than to say I’m eagerly anticipating the final installment in 2021.
Another quarantine escape was plunging back into The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, reading through Nemesis Games and Babylon’s Ashes in anticipation of the next season of the television adaptation coming to Amazon this month. Both books were what you would expect from a series of this caliber, but by Babylon’s Ashes it felt as though the series had reached a new level, combining its signature action and character development with a deeper linguistic style and philosophical bite as the stakes ramped up even higher. I’m a few books behind, but for now this series still seems to me nearly perfect guns-and-spaceships science fiction.
Finally, 2020 was for me the year of podcasts, as after weeks stuck in the house with four kids I needed to be able to disappear behind an audio wall and listen to adults talking, be that science journalism (Nature’s Coronapod was especially helpful) or insightful political commentary (The Daily and On the Media) or just excellent pop soup (You’re Wrong About). My favorite discovery though was Alzabo Soup, a podcast where two readers take a deep dive into the works of Gene Wolfe, exploring them chapter by chapter. Right now they’re moving through my favorite series of all time, The Book of the Long Sun, and their discussion and commentary on the books that made me fall in love with science fiction as literature feels like a bonus gift for making it nearly to the end of a long and difficult year.
M. L. Clark: Some may regard 2020 as a year of “comfort-viewing” but my inclinations ran strongly “therapeutic.” Whether binge-watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power through to a conclusion that offered redemption without underplaying the role of personal growth and collective healing, or revelling in His House, that rare, smart horror film which does not abandon its characters’ original traumas at any stage of the journey to recovery, I found a great deal of resilience through SFFH stories this year. Granted, there were some missteps along the way: Devs, another story about how we respond to trauma, proved stylistically elegant, but fell into tediously outdated plotting around a key female character. Star Trek: Picard was also a definite miss for this TNG fan, due to poor characterization, haphazard plotting, and a commitment to the same cheap twists that divided classic-Trekkie viewers of Discovery, too. And some shows, like Trickster (adapted from Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster), started strong—especially in its depiction of parentification and generational trauma—but have me anxious to see how they will progress. (All the same, I’m looking forward to ending the year on a high note with The Expanse: Season 5!)
In the realm of prose, novellas won out for healing narratives. My favourite full-length book this year was easily Hao Jingfang’s philosophical Vagabonds, which I reviewed for Strange Horizons, while The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell absolutely earned its Clarke Award with its expansive narrative arc. However, R.B. Lemberg’s The Four Profound Weaves just hit closer to home, by offering a nuanced unravelling of how gender is a lifelong discourse that we enact not only within ourselves and our changing communities, but also—if we’re very lucky—with the dear ones who become our family along the way. Similarly, Aliette de Bodard’s Seven of Infinities, a Xuya universe novella, bypassed my aversion to romance by advancing its murder mystery in conjunction with a richly depicted meditation on obligations past, present, and future, and Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which starts off as classic wuxia fantasy, also took some splendid turns into reflections on found family and the lives we make for ourselves.
It’s been a dreadful year for the world, but I’m thankful that we had so many creators whose most recent stories honoured loss in order to move us forward.
Rachel Cordasco: 2020 has been a dumpster fire of a year, and yet we were still treated to some wonderful SF in translation. My favorite novels from 2020 include: Daughter from the Dark [Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko] (Russian), Red Dust [Yoss] (Spanish/Cuban), As The Distant Bells Toll [Aleksandar Žiljak] (Croatian), and Dissipatio H.G.: The Vanishing [Guido Morselli] (Italian). I must also encourage all of you to read Italian sf author Clelia Farris’s collection Creative Surgery (translated by myself and Jennifer Delare), which came out in September. Also, check out MIT Press’s new editions of several Stanislaw Lem novels/collections. The stories are timeless and the covers are beautiful.
Favorite short stories from 2020 include: “The Other Woman” (World Literature Today), “The Perfect Sail” (Clarkesworld), “The Green Hills of Dimitry Totzkiy” (Samovar), “Two Moons” (Compelling Science Fiction), “The Curtain Falls, the Show Must End” (Samovar), and “The Plague” (Clarkesworld).
Finally, one of the most fascinating things I did this year was dive into Romanian SF in translation (in preparation for Romanian SFT Month in January on my website). I had no idea that so much was available in English! In particular, Twelve: A Romanian Science-Fiction Anthology (from 1995) opened my eyes to the sparkling variety of styles and themes in Romanian SF. I encourage everyone to learn more about this country’s speculative tradition.
Jonathan Crowe: My notes say that I somehow managed to read more books in 2020 than I did in 2019; all the same I did not keep up with new releases very well. Apart from what I reviewed here, I was pleasantly surprised on several levels by A. K. Larkwood’s debut novel, The Unspoken Name. I eagerly anticipated City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, which completed and expanded, semi-posthumously, their 1995 novella, “The City of God,” which I loved; the expansion showcased some brilliant and affecting passages before its truncated and sentimental ending.
The rest of my SF/fantasy reading involved catching up on earlier work that I simply didn’t get the chance to read the year they came out. Books published in 2019 that I did not get to until this year, and liked, included Elizabeth Bear’s vast space opera Ancestral Night; Kameron Hurley’s visceral grunt-level war novel The Light Brigade; Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mayan-gods-in-the-1920s-road-trip-novel Gods of Jade and Shadow; Helen Oyeyemi’s Gingerbread, a sharp and surreal novel about mothers, daughters and the immigrant experience; and Jo Walton’s Lent, which is basically the Renaissance Florence version of Groundhog Day. I also filled in some important gaps in my reading, including early novels by Samuel R. Delany (Babel-17 and Nova), short stories by Octavia E. Butler, and Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen. None of these are remotely new or unfamiliar to the field, but this was the year they finally came off my to-read shelf.
Let’s not waste words on how awful 2020 was—the coming years will be, if not worse, as bad, since fascism, capitalism and global warming haven’t decided to pack it in because of a pandemic, so we’d best buckle up and get ready. The good news is that art, despite many blows, persists.
From my home country, Samit Basu’s Chosen Spirits gave us one of the most convincing and creatively assured portrayals of a future India yet, extrapolating from the tech-aided fascist-oligarchic dystopia of its present to create a hyper-realist “cyberpunk” story that looks nothing like its western antecedents. Susanna Clarke’s emergence from hiatus proved to be worth the wait, with her second novel Piranesi offering a truly moving, gentle rumination on the way art undergirds the human understanding of both self and everything beyond the self, a house, perhaps, for the soul. It won’t be as loved as Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but is, in its own way, as good. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians continued his ascendance into mainstream popularity without compromising his literary chops, offering an unforgettably powerful, horrifying tale of the ways in which the trauma of violence reverberates through bodies, memory, generations, and environments. Carmen Maria Machado ventured into comics with the excellent horror coming-of-age tale The Low, Low Woods. Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds was a fantastic debut, a bleak but thrilling vision of resistance in a post-collapse future, where the wonders of multiversal travel become little more than fodder for the ravenous, profit-hungry jaws of tech-bro culture. Simon Jimenez’s The Vanished Birds (another debut), an ambitious space opera about the terrible toll of galactic capitalist “progress,” went undeservedly below the radar. I finally read Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s deservedly acclaimed This Is How You Lose The Time War, a brilliant, poetic love story of temporal demigods in warring factions rediscovering the joys of mortality through devotion to each other, which pairs well with Johnson’s novel to create a literary cat’s cradle of alternate timelines. Also from the previous year; Namwali Serpell’s stunning The Old Drift, a saga that crafts multiple novels' worth of story from Zambian history before bringing them together in the future, and once again showing that genre boundaries are meant to be broken. Even further from the past, I caught up with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, which further convinced me that she was, among other things, an incredible writer of horror.
On screen, The Expanse continued its run of being one of the most reliably excellent sci-fi TV shows in history (even the most iconic of the bunch tend to be very uneven despite their peaks). His House tied a socially aware drama about the scarring psychic and social displacement of refugees to a haunted-house horror story, to admirably moving and creepy effect. And there was Bacurau, a Brazilian genre-hybrid that imbues a love of American genre films into its uniquely ferocious, hypnotic critique of the genocidal capitalism of the Global North.
As always, I have but scratched the surface: art abides.
Christina Fanciullo: Although I haven’t traveled at all this year, 2020 has been like nothing so much as being on a plane. I’m in a cramped space, I have to trust that a bunch of strangers won’t do something to kill us all, everything takes ten times longer than it should, and my anxiety won’t stop tussling with my boredom. Also like on planes, everything makes me cry.
Let’s start with the most absurd thing to set me bawling: Assassination Classroom. It started off as a dark-edged manga that played with genre tropes, but turned into a gorgeous meditation on the value of hard work, the beauty of difference, and the awesome power of a good teacher. Cue weeping.
I also watched its anime (and cried), along with plenty of other cartoons. Animation has been a real draw (ba-dum ching) because it’s that much further from reality, but also because it’s been so honest and yet so optimistic in a time of lies and pessimism. She-Ra, Stephen Universe Future, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts have brought literal and figurative color into the world when little else could. Some of the tears they inspired were gay, both in the sense of happy and the sense of extremely bisexual.
On the equal and opposite side, I’ve compulsively sought out horror novels, probably for the same reason I listen to true crime podcasts: I want someone to acknowledge that things are deeply, deeply fucked up. I re-read [Jeff VanderMeer’s] Area X trilogy, delved into Catriona Ward’s works, loved The Hollow Places [Ursula Vernon], and have lately enjoyed Gwendolyn Kiste’s Boneset & Feathers. Perhaps the best, though, was Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark’s searing indictment of white supremacy with a cosmic horror twist.
And then there are the “horror” novels that aren’t classified as such. The matter-of-fact tragedy in The Siege of Troy [Theodor Kallifatides] hit me hard, but the most affecting was The Orphan Master’s Son [Adam Johnson], which I finally got around to reading. It’s a masterpiece about defying a dictatorship that I’ve added to my List of Lists, a book I would run to grab if there were a fire. Which, I suppose there has been. All year, without cease, with only tears to put it out.
Thank you to each and every creator whose art existed in 2020, and to everyone creating through this hell year. I hope 2020 does die in a fire, but also that the fire will finally burn itself out. (I know I’ve cried myself out.) I hope for all of us that 2021 will be a year of calmer, sweeter water.
Shannon Fay: In the past, I’d often whinge about how long it was taking Hilary Mantel to release the third book in her trilogy recounting the life of Thomas Cromwell. “This isn’t a GRRM situation where she’s written herself into a corner with no place to go,” I’d say to beleaguered friends who would rather take an ice bath than listen to me go on about Tudor England. “It’s historical fiction! The ending’s already written!”
But complaining about how long it takes for books to come out is bad form for a variety of reasons, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year it’s that sometimes books come out exactly when you need them. I got my copy of The Mirror and the Light from my local bookstore on 5th March. About a week later nearly everything in my city was shut down. In that time of uncertainty, having this long-awaited, fantastic novel to read helped me from freaking out. If you haven’t read Wolf Hall and its sequels, I highly recommend them (no matter how sick you are of Tudor England).
Another thing that helped me get through this year is R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War series. I’d been meaning to read the first book, The Poppy War, since it came out, but only got around to it this summer. Once I did I was desperate to read the sequel, and after that I was counting down the days to the release of the third and final book. The whole series is fantastic, and somehow manages to get better with each installment.
Piranesi probably doesn’t need any more hype, but I’ll give it some anyway: Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke is a wonderful jewel. If you could never get into Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I’d still recommend Piranesi as it’s a very different animal. It’s much shorter, for one thing, and manages to show both the worst and best of humanity in a way that never feels saccharine or cartoonish.
With the pandemic keeping me more or less housebound, I’ve been using the money I would usually spend on nights out to buy hardcover editions of manga, such as several Junji Ito collections and Udon’s release of The Rose of Versailles. Now I just have to figure out where to keep all these big books—giant hardcovers are not kind to IKEA shelves.
Bee Gabriel: I read one of my favorite novels (period) of all time this year, in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic. I also got exposed to so many new things through being able to interview authors for the Spectology podcast (Nino Cipri’s Finna and El Lam’s Goldilocks were particular standouts). I also can’t sing the praises of Temi Oh’s Do You Dream of Terra-Two? highly enough.
But the books that really rocked me this year were ones that helped me conceptualize a better future than our dismal present (by which I don’t just mean 2020, or the Trump years, or the last half-century of neoliberalism). To that end, I think the Ejeris Dixon & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha-edited Beyond Survival (a collection of writing about transformative justice), Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid (a short pamphlet about the titular concept and its execution), and the Alice Wong-edited Disability Visibility (a collection of personal essays about disability justice)—each complicated in its own way—gave me the most tools to think about how we build a better future.
And you know what? That steampunk videogame that got released in 1997 has had a stranglehold on my imagination for the last two decades. The fact that the Final Fantasy VII Remake actually worked—and not just worked, it had genuinely good characterization, a fleshed-out world that continued to make explicit critiques of corporate-led climate change, and was fun—was pretty cool.
Prashanth Gopalan: I spent most of 2020 reflecting on the malleability of society. As a biologist and economist by education, I’ve been trained to think in terms of systems: how they emerge, absorb disruptions, establish steady-state equilibria and eventually collapse. So in a year where the world has been wracked by a global pandemic, worldwide lockdowns, transnational protest movements, a sharp ratcheting up of tensions not seen since the Cold War, the largest economic recession since the Great Depression, the ongoing reconfiguration of the global political order, alien visits, and a seemingly intractable sense of continuous anxiety, I found myself turning to works which dissect the fragility of human society, featuring protagonists facing stark choices which summon forth the best and the worst in human nature.
Andrés Barba’s A Luminous Republic tells the story of a tribe of feral children invading a Latin American city already unsettled by a seemingly hostile local geography, destabilizing it in the process. With its lyrical prose, sociological analysis, critiques of colonialism and a timely analysis of reactionary populism, it felt like this novel had been written just for me. Triangulation: Extinction, a collection of speculative tales exploring the consequences of environmental collapse caused by unmoderated human activity, opened my eyes to the extent to which nearly every aspect of human society depends on the oppression of the natural world. In the order we have imposed on the planet, non-human things are either reduced to possessions or threats, with the goal being to maintain an unchallenged human dominion which allows us the freedom to consume and dispose as we wish. It’s a collection which uncorked thoughts that continue to swirl in my mind. The Best of Richard Matheson, a collection of haunting short stories from the mind which inspired the likes of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and Neil Gaiman, explores the choices and behavior of protagonists who find themselves in worlds that have suddenly become hostile, and which no longer feel like home. For some strange reason, I walked away from reading it with the impression that our ancestors were better prepared to handle danger and disruption in their daily lives than we are today.
With the visual genre, I found myself both revisiting old classics and discovering niche gems. Despite being a long-time science fiction aficionado, I realized I had never actually watched the original Star Trek series from the 1960s, and found myself marveling at how a show broadcast nearly six decades ago felt more optimistic, progressive and far-sighted than much of our politics today, making me realize that the passage of time is not coeval with social progress. As the weather grows colder in Canada and we find ourselves increasingly living indoors, I have also been spending ample time playing Frostpunk, a dystopian city-management game set in an alternate nineteenth-century where much of the world has frozen over, and where what little of humanity that remains clusters in settlements around giant steam-powered generators. As the leader of one such settlement, I find myself constantly confronting the fine balance between order and freedom, while ensuring the long-term survivability of my society.
Through it all, a sobering realization has been that even though I enjoy speculative fiction, with climate change and political disruption accelerating, speculative fiction and reality appear to be increasingly converging, and perhaps what I enjoy reading isn’t fiction any more, per se, but glimpses of increasingly plausible futures which may one day become unavoidable.